Two-hundred mile march for farmworkers' rights doesn't hurdle Publix roadblock

03/18/13 Lenka Davis
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About 1500 farmworkers and their allies completed their 200 mile, two week March for Respect, Rights and Fair food yesterday in Lakeland. They gathered at the headquarters of Publix in hope that the supermarket giant would honor what they’re calling a Fair Food Program.

More than a decade ago south Florida tomato harvesters began a campaign for fair working conditions. Before the Coalition of Immokalee Workers organized, wages had not gone up in more than 20 years and workers are still paid just an average of fifty cents per bucket of tomatoes. Gerardo Reyes from the coaliton says the program provides the workers not just with an extra penny per pound of picked tomatoes, but also with essential human rights.

“The right to be able to complain without retaliation, the right to work free of sexual harassment, discrimination, physical and verbal abuse, the right to don´t have to overfill your bucket, which is, in essence, putting ten percent less tomatoes in your bucket, which is a raise. We are eliminating all of that.”

Farmworker Oscar Otzoy remembers the days before the program came into existence.

"I remember one time I was working the tomato fields and they began to spray pesticides. So some colleagues and I got together and told the crew there that we didn't want to work since they had recently been sprayed by these pesticides. We were told that was fine and we could leave the farm and we would just have to wait there until the rest of the people were finished picking their tomatoes. The next day, to my surprise, my colleagues and I were informed that we no longer were able to work at that farm. He said you only come here to complain about work and that's not something that I can tolerate."

Silvia Perez has been working in the fields for 19 years. Before the workers had any sort of legal protection, she had to get up every morning at 4, returning to her family fifteen hours later, often earning less than minimum wage. She also faced various forms of abuse.

"It's difficult being a woman. A lot of times we find ourselves in an environment where there's a lot of men. It's always difficult working where there's just a little bit of women and a lot of men. Now, with the fair food agreement there's changes in discrimination, sexual harassment, stuff like that. And so there wasn't that before but now there's change, we see change in the field."

Eleven major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Burger King and Whole Foods are already participating in the Fair Food Program, purchasing their tomatoes from the 90 percent of Florida growers who are committed to eliminating the abuses. Yet the Coalition says Publix continues to buy tomatoes from at least two of the farms that have rejected the program.

The protesters sing “Yes, we can; yes, we could.” Students, religious leaders, community activists, consumers or solitary small farmers, all of them are united for the cause. Kim Wells, the pastor of the Lakewood United Church of Christ in St Petersburg says the church started supporting farmworkers since the broader movement began in 1960s.

"I think we're all involved because we all eat the food that comes from the fields from the people who are picking it. We all want this food in our grocery store and we want to enjoy food that we feel was grown and harvested and brought to us in a way that's fair and just and equitable and so that's why I think it's everybody because everybody eats."

Kate Savage from Nashville Fair Food in Tennessee has been volunteering during the march.

"I was on blister care for a little while and the strongest impressions for me were looking at feet that were so torn up and blistered and bruised. Trying to patch them up and saying 'there's nothing I can do to stop this from getting worse. It's going to get worse. Really the only thing to help is for you not to be on your feet for a few days, to rest on the bus or something like that'. Seeing these farmworkers who'd already marched hundreds of miles saying 'I came here to march 200 miles, I'm going to march 200 miles', even though they know that that is going to be incredibly painful."

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been trying to reach the agreement with Publix for more than three years.

Shannon Patten, the spokesperson for Publix, did not answer our repeated interview requests. In a statement, Publix says it won’t intervene in what it claims is a labor dispute between the farmworkers and their employers.

Here are more photos.

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